"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, " President Franklin Roosevelt insisted in an almost inconceivably dark time in world history. Words. Their influence is epic. By insisting that our personal scary thoughts were more threatening than any fearsome circumstance we had to face in the outer world, Roosevelt famously galvanized America's spirit, spearheaded recovery from The Great Depression, and eventually lead America into WWII following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.
I learned of Roosevelt's verbal challenge in history class when I was a teenager, trying to find my way. His words instantly became my own. I still believe that the fearful circumstances we imagine with our marvelous, magical mind are worse than the realities we face. Each thought a final act of doom. Maybe long before the feared thing happens...if ever...we've been to hell and back in our thoughts.
Here's the thing: fear is an emotion. We can't get along without them. But since Aristotle's iconic Age of Reason, we Western humans have idealized reason over emotions, thinking over feeling, firm decisions over the natural process of allowing change to evolve. I'm not a hawk. I'm not a dove. I'm just a person who is a holistic psychotherapist by profession, aware that pretending we are not afraid is tragic, actually. We create our fears by pretending they aren't there. What we focus on is what we become. All that effort in pushing fear down and away from our consciousness instead of dealing with it positively takes an uber amount of focused attention. I've tried. You have too no doubt.
Pretending we're not afraid is similar to standing in the kiddie end of a swimming pool with water knee-deep. The things we're afraid of are like soccer balls we're constantly pushing under the water... Relationships...Job...Mortgage...Health...Wall Street. When we're afraid of our fears, we force them down, away, out of sight...out of mind. You know how well that works. All that does is make the fears erupt to the surface with greater force and power than they had when they were just floating on top of the pool where we could keep them in our line of vision. Until we decided what to do with them.
Here's another thing. In most spiritual and religious circles, fear gets bad press. As if, merely feeling fear means we don't trust The Almighty...The Universe...Buddha nature...whatever. How many times have you heard: Fear restricts. Fear limits. Fear prevents growth. Fear comes from the dark side. No truly spiritual person allows fear to enter into their expanded consciousness. Intuitively we know there is something wrong with that line of thinking.
Spiritual bypass - denying our feelings, escaping the nudges and stomach tightenings our body sends when we're afraid, pretending that we only have good emotions like love, faith, hope and trust - scares me more than fear itself. Real fear. Real emotions. Real people. I'm down with that.
Honestly, if we're breathing, can we avoid feeling fear? I don't think so. I believe that ALL emotions are barometers that help us measure where we are. When we label our emotions as good or bad, we restrict the flow of messages life is sending. The real issue is how to manage fear. To what degree does fear freak us out? Panic and anxiety are not our friend. And when we ignore fear at the beginning of a tricky situation, panic and anxiety have a chance to build up and explode. It isn't a pretty picture.
Taking any emotion to its extreme is limiting and unhealthy. In reality, isn't it what we do with our emotions that really decides how useful or harmful they are? This simple Native American story speaks to me again and again. When in doubt, it sets me straight: A Cherokee is telling his grandson about a fight that is going on inside himself. He said it is between 2 wolves. One is evil: Anger, envy, sorrow, regret, fearful thinking, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good: Joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf wins?" The Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."
So how do we feed the light and deny the dark when we have both? Try this focused imagining when we acknowledge that a specific scary situation has caught us in its grip: Imagine that situation, that person, that challenge that's keeping you awake at night...and making you crazy and cross everyday. Find a safe place - alone - sit still (I like to walk until I find a secluded spot without people, find a wide old tree, sit with my back to it, shut my eyes, and let go.) Now breathe deeply and allow yourself to float into a twilight meditative state. Keep breathing deep and full breaths one right after the other. Keep your eyes shut, or focus on something in front of you until your visions blurs. Allow your mind to see your fear embodied energetically, as if it were a person sitting across from you.
Now begin a dialogue in your head. Ask who, what, when and how questions, never why. Why questions put you in your rational left brain. If we had been able to reason why when we were afraid, why when were stuck, why when things weren’t working out, we would have changed it by now. Right? Let why go. It doesn't work. In the conversation with fear, ask, listen, respond, take charge and set your boundaries for what you will - and will not - allow from this strong emotion. When you've worked out the conflict, thank fear for giving you needed cautionary information, and then get on about the business of living.
Actively challenging fear may seem weird and uncomfortable at first, but you’ll get the hang of it. Take it from Einstein. He believed in magic. Frustrated by his inability to figure out how to split the atom, Einstein employed a similar sort of focusing technique, and saw the image of a snake biting its own tail. This symbolic picture, achieved through a decidedly right-brain process - rather than a why, left-brain process - inspired Einstein to construct scientific theory. When we allow our attention to focus on the emotional energy right in front of us, and give our overworked rational mind a break, even mere mortals like you and me can gain surprising insight, just as Einstein did.
I recall working with a male client who achieved a huge ah ha from his dialogue with fear. In a centered and meditative state, my client insisted that fear answer his who, what, when, where and how questions. In the process, he discovered that fear had its origin in his family, and in fact wore his mother’s face. He was shocked by the force of this startling awareness.
As a child, this gentle man had been taught that risk taking was bad. Unconsciously - as most of us do when we are children - he had accepted this belief. The result was a lifetime of frustration, and failure to reach his dreams. When he approached change the parental voice in his head told him to be careful...and he backed down from heading in the direction his own intuition led. By establishing a right relationship with fear, over time he chose differently and was freed to move towards his dreams.
How comfortable are you...and I...with the plus and minus emotions in our life? Who decided which emotions were good and which were bad? What would happen if we challenged fear and befriended the gnarly monsters that populate our psyche?
I like how it works out in fairy tales: A loving kiss turns the bad guy into a prince, and awakens the princess from slumber. Love is stronger than fear. This story has a happy ending....